Summary:

The New York Times has been looking for a new CEO since Janet Robinson was forced out seven months ago, and BBC director-general Mark Thompson is said to be in the running for the job. But is he the solution to the newspaper’s problems?

NYT Building, New York Times Building
photo: Getty Images / Mario Tama

In the nearly seven months since Janet Robinson was forced out, the New York Times Co. has either had an interim CEO in Arthur Sulzberger Jr. or no CEO, depending on your point of view. In any case, Sulzberger was never meant to continue as chairman and CEO long term, and a search has been underway for some time — but how it will end is still unclear. The latest potential candidate is departing BBC Director-General Mark Thompson, reported by The Guardian to be “considering” the job along with other possibilities for his post-Beeb career.

Whether the New York Times Co. board is considering Thompson or actually has offered the job is a different question — one that got a “no comment” from NYTCo PR (it’s possible that the talks went public in part to push a decision from the Times). Although this is a standard response when such things come up, there could be some meat to this particular rumor: we are told it’s a job he would like, since his wife is from the U.S. and he has talked with friends about moving here for his next gig. And he could be a “get” for the NYT board, with his biggest draw being the BBC’s track record of digital innovation during his tenure.

Meanwhile, sources have brushed off speculation about most of the other candidates who have been touted in the press at various times, including Gordon Crovitz — the former Wall Street Journal publisher and co-founder/co-CEO of paywall operator Press+ — who speaks fluent newspaper, digital and premium content.

Then again, newspaper fluency or even experience is not a prerequisite for this job. The company has experienced newspaper execs in place — one of them, Scott Heekin-Canedy, president and GM of the NYT, is considered to be the leading candidate if the job goes to an internal candidate. (Others have reported that NYTCo Vice-Chairman Michael Golden, Sulzberger’s cousin, has expressed interest in the job. But while the family has the voting power to push it through, we’re told Golden has been explicit about not wanting it.)

What does matter is digital fluency and a record of pushing innovation across platforms. Where does Thompson fit on that? A former BBC colleague with direct experience on that front tells paidContent:

He is formidably clever — probably the cleverest guy I have ever worked with; very strong on strategy, gets digital totally – but from 30,000 feet. [He] hasnt ever really had a hands-on digital role but I think he could work as CEO.

Along those lines. Thompson hasn’t been close to online products; that was left to those who run or ran the future media and technology groups. iPlayer, the on-demand digital video product, pre-dated him. Innovation at the BBC comes from through the organization, usually not the top, but Thompson gets credit for getting a lot of ideas through. His tenure has been marked by downsizing in order to avoid a license-fee cut, and then again when the cut was delivered anyway. “Delivering Quality First” included a 25 percent-budget cut to online activities with an eye toward focusing on “what the BBC does best”, not all of which actually occurred.

And what about being the CEO of a public company in the U.S. versus the publicly funded BBC? That former colleague says, “He would like to have another substantial role and would like to find something that would surprise people. His wife is American — and the news and media challenges would really appeal to him.” But Thompson’s entire career has been in public service broadcasting at the BBC and as head of Channel 4 (a commercial channel but still public service in UK terms): “He ran Channel 4 here — a small commercial company — and has grown the BBC’s commercial revenues in his 8 years. But fundamentally he is a public service broadcast guy.”

Even so, Thompson has pushed to expand the BBC’s commercial activities in TV, online and mobile — and particularly in the U.S. by growing BBC America, BBC World News, the U.S.-facing news show on that channel, syndication of BBC shows through online platforms and more. Much of this comes through BBC Worldwide, a commercial division of the BBC.

He also knows what it is like to lead an iconic brand, and in an often-glaring spotlight. In the U.S., he would have to face investors but he wouldn’t have the same kind of political scrutiny as a manager or the pressure that comes from being funded publicly. That funding can be a boon but it also has kept the BBC out of certain areas or forced shut downs to avoid competing with for-profit media companies. That wouldn’t be an issue at the New York Times Co., which needs all the commercial opportunity — and delivery — it can get.

As for timing, while Robinson’s surprise departure took place last December, the board only started the search process formally in March by hiring Spencer Stuart. We can’t report an announcement is imminent but glimmers of daylight are showing in the tunnel. Thompson’s BBC term is over at the end of this year; if he turns out to be the answer, that interim title for Sulzberger could stick a lot longer than expected.

New board members

The board did have one announcement after its regularly scheduled meeting Thursday. The new CEO, whoever it may be, will have some high-profile digital advisors as Joi Ito and Brian McAndrews join the board.

Ito, an Internet pioneer, entrpreneur and early investor in Twitter and Kickstarter, among others, has been director of the MIT Media Lab since last September. McAndrews is a partner at Madrona Venture Group; he joined Microsoft as SVP, advertiser and publisher solutions after it acquired aQuantive, Inc., where he was CEO.

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